Michelle Fairley is one of our biggest acting successes, but little is known of her. As she plays Ann Best in a new drama, Michelle tells Audrey Watson why she values her privacy
Like Ann Best, the character she plays in tomorrow night's BBC2 drama, we don't know an awful lot about Ulster actress Michelle Fairley. The Ballycastle-born woman is one of our most successful exports, but compared to other home-grown stars such as James Nesbitt, Amanda Burton or Liam Neeson, her profile is remarkably low and as for in-depth interviews... well, this chat with Weekend is something of a first.
After being warned by a strict PR to keep questions work-related (often not a good sign), it comes as a surprise to discover that Michelle is actually warm, chatty, very shy and extremely modest.
“It's just a bit part, really,” she says of her future role as Muggle dentist Mrs Granger (mother of Hermione) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final film in the hugely popular series. “I've shot it already and honestly, blink and you'll miss me,” she laughs.
And speaking of her lack of public exposure, she explains: “As an actor you accept that you have to publicise what you do, but as for the whole personal life thing that people sometimes choose, no, that's not for me. I've always kept the focus on my work.”
And what a body of work 45-year-old Michelle has under her belt — this year alone.
In February, she starred with Julie Walters in acclaimed drama, A Short Stay in Switzerland. Currently she's appearing in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Vic in London alongside Niamh Cusack, Susan Lynch and Andrea Corr.
She's also had a part in Lark Rise to Candleford and tomorrow night, viewers will watch Michelle tell the story of Ann Best in the TV drama, Best: His Mother's Son.
Written by award-winning local writer Terry Cafolla and co-starring Tom Payne as the young George and Lorcan Cranitch as Dickie Best, His Mother's Son is a fact-based film that parallels Ann Best's tragic descent into alcoholism with her talented son's fall from grace and the early beginnings of his own battle with the bottle. It also explores the possibility of alcohol addiction being inherited and highlights the problem of alcohol abuse among ordinary women.
“That was one of the things that attracted me to the script,” admits Michelle. “This was a woman who never touched a drink before the age of 44, but who found herself unable to cope with external factors over which she had no control.
“I felt a massive responsibility to tell this woman's story as honestly as possible without causing any insult to her family. This was a real woman and I didn't want to trivialise her life any way at all.
“Ann's story is fascinating and heart-breaking. Terry didn't shy away from showing the effects that life had on Ann and this made the part really real, hurtful and sad.”
Growing up in Ballycastle, the young Michelle (daughter of well-known Coleraine publicans Brian and Teresa Fairley) didn't have a particularly strong desire for an acting career, but involvement with the Ulster Youth Theatre sparked her interest.
“UYT was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she recalls. “Michael Poyner who ran the group treated us teenagers as professional actors — you had to be on time, you had to rehearse, you had to know your lines. It was an amazing experience.
“I went to a convent grammar school in Ballycastle and they didn't do drama, but I'd always had a bit of an inkling, and involvement with the UYT confirmed it. After I left school, I lived in Belfast for several years and myself and Conleth Hill [Stones in his Pockets], who I had been friendly with growing up, joined an amateur drama group called Fringe Benefits. We went to that every week and that's basically where it all started.
“I then went across to Manchester to study drama. They had a really good course at the polytechnic there — Steve Coogan was in my year — and after a few months my tutor put me up for a job and I got it.”
The ‘job' was a part in the first production of Belfast writer Christina Reid's play Joyriders at the Tricycle Theatre, London in 1986 and it meant a move to the capital, where Michelle has been based ever since.
Over the years, as well as in Hollywood movies, Michelle has appeared in a string of popular TV shows including Holby City, Rebus, Ahead of the Class, Trial & Retribution and Inspector Morse. And her theatre work has been highly acclaimed by critics.
In 2008, she was nominated for an Olivier Award for her performance as Emilia in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse — an achievement Michelle dismisses with her characteristic modesty.
“When you're doing a job, you go out there and do it to the best of your ability and you don't think about awards and things like that,” she says. “It was lovely to be nominated and acknowledged. It was a great company and we had a wonderful director.”
Michelle is equally humble about her roles in Hollywood movies including Hideous Kinky with Kate Winslet and The Others with Nicole Kidman and Keith Allen.
“Och, I haven't really done that many,” she says sounding almost embarrassed. “You know, I had such a small part in The Others and those things can be quite intimidating if you are only there for a short period of time.
“It's always fascinating when you work on something like that where you have all these world famous people, but you just have to treat it as a normal job. You're an actor and you have work to do and you do it to the best of your ability.”
But Harry Potter... does this modest woman not know how popular the films are?
“I'm pretty sure no one will recognise me,” she laughs. “I've lots of nieces and nephews and friends' children who are fans. I know it's an institution, but my part really is very small,” she insists.
Considering her considerable success both on stage and screen, has she never been tempted to try her luck in Hollywood?
“No, I love what I do here,” she replies firmly. “I've done Broadway and it was a fantastic experience, but I'm very happy in London. If work comes that involves going to America, that's fine, but otherwise, no.”
Now that she's in her forties, Michelle believes that acting, like other professions whose employees are in the public eye, discriminates against women once they reach a certain age.
“There are fewer and fewer new roles for actresses as they get older,” she says. “And that's not right.
“There certainly should be more — there are so many amazing older actresses out there. Age in this country is not celebrated and the wonderful things that come with it, such as experience and knowledge, are forgotten.
“If you look at the classics, there are lots of wonderful parts for older women, but there needs to be more new drama.
“And because of the recession, there's even less new stuff being made. It's an absolute shame.
“These days it's all about ratings and if repeats bring in the viewers, then that's what the powers that be will show. There are wonderful people who write for TV, but a lot of their work never gets made.
“That's why I'm so pleased about His Mother's Son. It was a wonderful script and a wonderful project. TV needs more dramas like this. It was a privilege playing Ann. It was an amazing thing to be involved with.”
Best: His Mother's Son, tomorrow, BBC Two, 9pm. A short behind-the-scenes documentary, Best: Made in Belfast will also be shown at 10.30pm, immediately following the film